Peterson: Preliminary Trial

August 12, 2003

Experts examine remains

MARTINEZ -- Scott Peterson's attorneys and a pair of high-profile experts examined the remains of Laci Peterson and her unborn son Monday, looking for evidence to clear their client of double murder charges.

Eight members of the defense team, which now includes criminalist Dr. Henry Lee and forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, were inside the coroner's facility here for about 2 1/2 hours. They later went to the Petersons' Covena Avenue home.

Attorney Mark Geragos said little about the substance of the examination when the defense team emerged from the Contra Costa County coroner's office at noon.

"There's not much that we can talk about obviously between the gag order (previously issued in the case) and just in deference to both the Peterson and the Rocha families," Geragos said. "Obviously Dr. Wecht and Dr. Lee have agreed to come on board and to help us in this matter."

Senior Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris, one of the prosecutors handling the case, and members of the Modesto Police Department oversaw the defense examination.

Lee, the former director of the Connecticut State Police Forensics Science Laboratory, was a defense expert in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. He testified regarding crime scene reconstruction, blood splatter interpretation and trace evidence.

Wecht, coroner of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, is a renowned forensic pathologist.

"Both are thought of in their fields as the foremost experts," Geragos said. "Given the consequences in this case, and given, I think initially at least, some of the investigative things that were done, I think it was important to get the best people in the field."

Peterson, 30, is charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of his 27-year-old wife and unborn son. He could receive the death penalty if convicted.

Defense attorneys maintain police ignored other leads and focused on Peterson almost immediately after his wife was reported missing Christmas Eve. Her body and that of her unborn child were found separately in April along the east shore of San Francisco Bay, within four miles of the spot where Scott Peterson said he launched his boat Dec. 24 for a solo fishing trip.

Peterson was arrested near Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla on April 18, the day DNA testing identified the bodies.

Autopsies were performed on the badly decomposed remains shortly after they were found just over a mile apart along the shoreline near Richmond.

In the face of massive media attention, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami ordered those autopsy reports sealed, along with a host of other documents in the case. Death certificates were made public; however, no cause of death was listed.

Last month, Girolami granted a defense request to conduct its own examination of the bodies. On Friday he issued a ruling that laid out guidelines for the examination, including the use of photographs, videotape, X-rays and the removal of "reasonable" amounts of tissue and fluid samples.

The defense team was required to provide its own medical instruments, and the group brought in cases on wheels, a large brown paper bag and other items.

Defense experts routinely review autopsy findings in murder cases, and second autopsies are becoming increasingly frequent, said Dr. Michael Baden, a former New York City medical examiner, who has worked with both Lee and Wecht on other cases.

"Mistakes can be made, intentionally or unintentionally," Baden said. "It's always appropriate for the defense to review things. Suppose they come back and agree 100 percent with the prosecution. The defense may want to plea bargain."

Prosecutors are expected to reveal a substantial amount of their case at a preliminary hearing scheduled for Sept. 9. At the hearing's end, Girolami will determine if there is enough evidence to hold Peterson for trial.

Defense attorneys have asked to keep the hearing closed to the public, arguing the inevitable media attention would make it impossible to find a fair jury.

News organizations, including The Bee, are seeking to keep the hearing open, arguing that open proceedings guard against abuse by judges or prosecutors and other means, such as moving the trial and sequestering jurors, can ensure Peterson a fair trial.

Prosecutors want the hearing open but want television cameras barred from the courtroom.

On Monday, the defense filed paperwork saying an open preliminary hearing would inject error in the case that could be raised on appeal.

Geragos also said a ruling last month by the 5th District Court of Appeal that overturned a superior court judge and sealed search warrants in the case provided a "virtual road map to closure of the preliminary hearing."

Girolami is to hear arguments on the issue Thursday.

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or

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